Offseason Q&A: Stanford

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Notre Dame’s season finale will once again have major implications—if all goes according to plans. The Irish will close the season in Northern California, visiting Stanford in a rivalry that’s growing quickly to become one of the more important ones on the Irish schedule.

No longer are the Cardinal the shabby outfit best remembered for a spunky marching band or a zany mascot. David Shaw has built one of college football’s most consistent programs, continuing Jim Harbaugh’s reclamation project as he’s put together a rough-and-tumble bully in a conference not exactly know for its physicality. Just as impressive, the Cardinal have also revved up their recruiting machine, another elite academic institution that’s winning its share of battles for blue-chip talent.

To get us up to speed on things at The Farm, Do-Hyoung Park joins me. A fellow St. Paul native, Do is a senior staff writer and former sports editor of The Stanford Daily where he’s covered the Cardinal football, baseball and tennis squads, while also serving as part of the football broadcast team on KZSU, Stanford’s student radio station. He’s majoring in chemical engineering.

(He also wrote this, which I’d be happy to co-sign.)

From the great state of Minnesota, Do provided some great, in-depth answers to the best questions I could think up. Hope you enjoy.

 

After an incredible run, Stanford finally had an average season, with the Cardinal finishing 8-5 on the year. Their losses were all respectable, but a tough schedule and just an average offense doomed David Shaw’s team. What was the attitude like on The Farm this spring? And from a psyche perspective, how did the players and coaching staff react to their most disappointing season since early in the Harbaugh era?

I definitely can’t speak for the players and coaches, but I can tell you one thing: It’s been clear to me for the last couple of years that despite all of the program’s recent success, nobody has started to take winning for granted — success is earned, not a given.

And with that in mind, I think the 8-5 season was more frustrating for the team than disappointing. They felt they were certainly going out there and playing well enough — on defense, at least — to earn their victories week in and week out (apart from the Oregon and ASU games). But game after game, seemingly one momentary lapse in execution would do the team in and turn what arguably should have been wins in their minds into losses.

Remember that Stanford actually did score the go-ahead touchdown late against USC but had it called back on a boneheaded chop block by running back Remound Wright. Remember that Stanford had Notre Dame on the ropes before cornerback Wayne Lyons pretty much forgot to cover his man on fourth-and-11.

Don’t let the record fool you — the 2014 Stanford team was worse than its predecessors, but not by much. Three games came down to one play that didn’t go Stanford’s way. If they had, we’re looking at 11-2 and probably a top-10 ranking to end the year. Isn’t football fickle?

The bottom line is that every week, the players were frustrated because they knew that they were capable of playing so much better. Nothing really changed for the Cardinal when they tore Cal, UCLA and Maryland apart to end the season — it’s that they stopped making mistakes and finally started playing to their potential.

Call it a rebuilding season, a downturn or whatever you will, but people around the Stanford program know that their record in 2014 wasn’t indicative of how good this program was (and still is), and I’m willing to bet that they’re poised to use the frustration of last year as fuel for their fire in 2015. These guys are used to playing with a huge chip on their shoulders, and that goes double for this season.

 

Kevin Hogan is entering his final season on The Farm. Irish fans have seen Hogan plenty, and are well aware that they were one of the quarterback’s favorite schools, but didn’t offer before Hogan committed to Stanford. Last year was an up and down season for Hogan, though he finished on a high note. How confident are Cardinal fans that Hogan is the type of quarterback who can do more than just steer the ship? The Irish had Tommy Rees, a “game manager” quarterback by most Irish fans’ appraisals. Is Hogan more than that?

Even through two Pac-12 titles and two Rose Bowl appearances, Cardinal fans have never had full confidence in Kevin Hogan. By now, they’ve resigned themselves to the fact that no, Kevin Hogan will never be more than a “game manager” in their minds. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Sure, it’s incredible when a program gets a quarterback like Andrew Luck that can truly carry a program and raise the bar, but Stanford doesn’t need life-changing play at the quarterback position to be an elite team — it just needs an efficient, mistake-free player that can effectively distribute the ball. And that’s exactly what Hogan can do when he’s at his best.

It was, as you described, an up-and-down season for Hogan last year, but he was dealing with quite a bit of adversity both on and off the field in having to play behind an offensive line breaking in four starters while also dealing with the illness and eventual passing of his father during the season.

Despite that, the accuracy problems that have plagued him in the past have seemingly gotten better, and when his offensive line is getting push for his running backs to balance out the offense, Hogan can be brutally efficient in dishing the ball on a dime to his playmakers out wide. Such was the case when he was 15-of-20 for 214 yards at Cal and 16-of-19 for 234 yards at UCLA.

His biggest problem over the last few seasons was that he wouldn’t go through his progressions and lock on to his biggest weapon, Ty Montgomery, and try to force him the ball, often into heavy coverage. But with two-plus years of starting experience under his belt and a deep, talented receiving corps around him, I’m expecting his mistakes and lapses to be few and far between this year. And that’ll be enough.

 

Perhaps the biggest change inside the Cardinal program is the defense. Even if Lance Anderson managed to keep the train rolling after replacing Derek Mason, Stanford needs to replace NINE STARTERS from a veteran defense. How exactly will they do that? Or are you expecting a major step backwards?

The defensive situation may appear pretty dire at first glance, but I’m quite surprised that people haven’t given Stanford’s defense at least the benefit of the doubt after it finished as a top-5 unit in the country in each of the last three seasons.

It’s not like Stanford hasn’t had to rebuild on defense before. At the end of 2013, the Cardinal lost DE Josh Mauro, LB Trent Murphy, LB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner and SS Ed Reynolds, who were most of the entire defensive core of that 2013 team. (Four of the above are now NFL players.) The Cardinal didn’t even skip a beat.

It’s not like Stanford hasn’t been recruiting well on defense — the Cardinal are plugging holes with four-star and five-star recruits all over their two-deep.

And finally, it’s not like Stanford is going to be playing fresh faces — because of Stanford’s robust defensive rotation, only two of the projected starters on defense haven’t seen significant game action before.

Lance Anderson (DC), Duane Akina (secondary) and Randy Hart (D-line) are some of the absolute best coaches in the business and have proven track records. I’m sure the defense will have its growing pains at the start, but I don’t think it will regress by much.

 

Back to the offensive side of the ball. Stanford built their offense around a strong offensive line and a solid running game. But they couldn’t seem to find a go-to running back after having great luck riding guys like Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney. Who do you expect to take charge of the position group in 2015 and will the offensive line simply reload after losing Andrus Peat?

Shaw has made no secret of the fact that rising sophomore Christian McCaffrey will be the feature piece of the Stanford offense in 2015. Stanford fans were sorely disappointed that they didn’t get to see more of him last year, and for good reason too: McCaffrey is, without question, the most electric playmaker on this team and the future leader of this offense.

Last year, he averaged a remarkable 7.1 yards per carry and 14.8 yards per reception, and regardless of where he’s playing — running back, slot receiver, wildcat back, kick/punt returner — he has the speed and change-of-direction ability to be a game-changer. On top of that, he’s added a lot of muscle this offseason, which adds a more downhill, power dimension to his game as well.

McCaffrey isn’t going to be a traditional Stanford power back in the mold of Taylor or Gaffney, and I’m expecting Shaw to expand the playbook in a way he never has before at Stanford to exploit McCaffrey’s considerable skill set. I’d still expect Remound Wright, who was great to close 2014, in short-yardage and goal-line situations, though. Unfortunately, it looks like Barry Sanders will be the odd man out. I really wish that he’d panned out.

The offensive line shouldn’t take a huge step back with the loss of Peat, as former five-star recruit Kyle Murphy, who started every game at right tackle last year, will switch over to Hogan’s blind side and highly-touted sophomore Casey Tucker should fill in just fine at right tackle. This line struggled for most of last year but came together in a big way down the stretch — if it can retain that late-season form, McCaffrey and Hogan should have a big year.

 

It just isn’t realistic to think that the Stanford defense will fall off a cliff. So who do you expect to step forward on that side of the ball for the Cardinal? Can you walk us through the defenders you expect to emerge as big-time players in 2015?

The defensive line will determine whether or not Stanford’s defense will remain elite in 2015.

Solomon Thomas, the five-star crown jewel of Stanford’s 2014 recruiting class, was reportedly borderline unblockable in the spring, and alongside classmate Harrison Phillips, who put on 20 pounds this offseason, the defensive ends have tremendous upside but are still unproven. The ridiculous combination of Thomas’ size, agility and drive have the potential to make him one of the breakout defensive stars in not just the Pac-12, but the nation this year.

As the ESPN Pac-12 Blog said earlier this summer, though, the true make-or-break position on this line will be at nose tackle. There are currently zero nose tackles on Stanford’s roster, and the Cardinal will likely turn to senior DE Aziz Shittu to fill in at arguably the most important position in Stanford’s 3-4 defense. I don’t know if I necessarily expect Shittu to emerge as a star or not, but if Stanford’s defense is going to be successful, he’s going to need to have a big year.

Behind the line, expect linebacker Blake Martinez, last year’s leading tackler, to again be an underrated yet dominant run-stuffing force on the inside. And in Stanford’s revamped secondary, Kodi Whitfield, who transitioned from wide receiver to free safety, is poised for a huge year. He’s impressed just about everyone with how quickly he picked up the position, and as a converted offensive player, he’s going to have a leg up at locking on to opposing schemes and looks.

Don’t forget the last guy that switched from WR to DB at Stanford. You might have heard of him.

 

David Shaw is widely respected at the college level. His record since taking over for Jim Harbaugh speaks for itself. Yet last season, we finally heard some grumbling about Shaw’s performance—though mostly from Cardinal fans likely spoiled from these past few seasons.

That said, the Cardinal lost some games they maybe shouldn’t have (USC for one). Are some of the question marks (red zone playcalling, for one) just the product of a five-loss season, or has Shaw’s star lost a bit of its shine in recent years?

I’m surprised it took you so long to hear the Shaw discontent — Stanford fans have been grumbling about Shaw and his “overly conservative” playcalling since at least 2012. And, as you know, that came to a head last year when Shaw was the fans’ scapegoat for Stanford’s hilariously awful red-zone efficiency.

When you take a closer look at it, though, I don’t think Shaw’s play-calling has been the problem; his stubbornness is what has been holding him back a bit.

Shaw has always loved his run-first, methodical style in the red zone, and in Stanford’s run of dominance from 2012-14, he had the personnel to pull that off: The offensive line was stout and the running backs could find the holes and protect the ball well.

In 2015, Shaw tried to do the same with personnel that just couldn’t handle it. You can’t really blame Shaw for offensive line penalties, fumbles and missed field goals (all of which were much bigger problems than Shaw’s play-calling), but you could potentially blame him for not adjusting and continuing to put his players in those same positions to make the same mistakes over and over again. But even that might be a stretch.

The reality is that hindsight is always 20/20, and whenever something goes wrong, Stanford fans love to second-guess and point fingers — often at Shaw. They bashed him for throwing too much in the 2013 loss to Utah (despite the Utes’ strong run defense). And again for running too much in the Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State (despite Sparty’s ridiculous secondary). And again for punting twice from USC territory in the 2014 loss (even though our extremely unreliable kicker would have been kicking into a strong wind). If something goes wrong, whatever Shaw did, somebody will find a way to complain about it. He really can’t win in that situation.

With that in mind, I don’t think Shaw deserves all of the discontent that Stanford fans direct towards him. Also keep in mind that he runs a clean program and recruits extremely well given Stanford’s constraints. And as a Stanford graduate himself, he absolutely loves his job. I don’t really know what more you can ask for.

 

Notre Dame and Stanford are becoming quite a rivalry, and once again a regular-season finale could very well have postseason ramifications. The Irish have playoff hopes as they prepare to enter fall camp. What needs to happen for the Cardinal to be in the mix for a Pac-12 title and a spot in the CFB Playoff when Notre Dame comes to Palo Alto over Thanksgiving weekend?

Given the recent past, it’s really weird to think that the defense worries me much more than the offense does.

In general, Stanford’s key is to win the trenches. If the O-line reverts to early 2013 form, Hogan can’t be his efficient self. If the D-line doesn’t stuff the run and force pocket pressure, then the high-flying quarterbacks of the Pac-12 will decimate Stanford’s talented yet inexperienced secondary. Stanford’s offense is talented, but Hogan just doesn’t have the firepower to keep up in a shootout.

If the lines hold, though, the sky’s the limit for this Stanford team, and if it can win on the road at USC in Week 3, the secondary has time to develop further before Stanford’s other tough matchups (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Notre Dame — all at home). That USC game is key. If Stanford wins that, then I’ll be convinced that the defense is for real, and Oregon is the only obstacle between Stanford and a Pac-12 North title — and a legitimate shot at the playoff.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

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Notre Dame’s offensive line was clearly going to be a strength entering the season. Before a single snap, two expected All-Americans were leading the way. Sure enough, senior left guard Quenton Nelson ended up a unanimous All-American while fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey secured consensus honors.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The only question about the offensive line entering the season was who would take over at right tackle with senior Alex Bars moving inward to right guard. Counting Bars, the line returned four starters.

Presumably, sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg were the two involved in the right tackle competition. Through spring practice, Kraemer appeared to have an edge large enough to be considered the starter but not so large as to eradicate any further discussion in preseason practice.

Neither inspired an excess of confidence, such that offensive line coach Harry Hiestand would even acknowledge the possibility of Bars still being the best right tackle option on the roster. Hiestand was not considering moving Bars, though. The gap between Bars and anyone else at right guard was much greater than the discrepancy between Bars and Kramer (or Eichenberg).

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Freshman Robert Hainsey forced his way into the right tackle competition at some point before the season. He did so to such an extent, Eichenberg was relegated to the nominal duty of backing up McGlinchey. How much work does that job not warrant? Eichenberg saw action in only five games, the streak of Irish routs running from the trip to Boston College through the thrashing of USC.

Kraemer and Hainsey shared the position all season, the latter showing adeptness in pass protection while the Kraemer’s strength came in the running game, although the two usually swapped playing time by the series, not by the situation.

Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey’s final Irish season will be remembered as a year he established himself as the voice of the team while leading what could still be named the nation’s best offensive line. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other 80 percent of the line held to summer’s expectations. Senior center Sam Mustipher’s season should be noted. While Nelson and McGlinchey earned the headlines and awards — and deservedly so — Mustipher quietly played nearly as well.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The offensive line’s dominance this season best shows itself in the running statistics. When looking at sacks allowed, Notre Dame endured only three fewer than last year (25 compared to 28), somewhat a cost of trotting out a quarterback himself so inclined to run the ball.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
It is readily and widely assumed Nelson will head to the NFL while both Mustipher and Bars will return for their final seasons of eligibility. All three would be the logical decisions.

If that all proves true, the Irish essentially return four “starters.” Both Kraemer and Hainsey saw enough action this season to be considered starters for the intent of this and nearly any offseason conversation.

Before deciding on the fifth starter, Hiestand will need to decide what position that newcomer will slot into. One of Kraemer or Hainsey could move to left tackle or left guard. (Kraemer at left guard would make some sense.) Bars could move to left guard, leaving right guard open for, again, Kraemer or Hainsey. (Again, moving Kraemer to guard seems an inevitability in the next three years.) There could be a thought to moving both Kraemer and Hainsey to the left side and finding a new right tackle. (Want to guess who would be projected at left guard in that scenario?)

The only certainty: Mustipher will start at center, presuming he returns. For kicks and giggles, it could be speculated how much preseason hype Mustipher will get as the stalwart of a seemingly-unproven line. That s-adjective belies a trick question; this will not be as unproven a unit as it may appear on the surface.

Replacing Nelson’s and McGlinchey’s chemistry, physicality and maturity will not happen, but there is reason to think the drop-off may not be debilitating. Mustipher can provide the steadying force for Bars to reinforce. Another year in a collegiate program should only further Hainsey’s immediate progress. A hypothetical move to guard will fit Kraemer’s skillset more naturally.

That leaves that pesky fifth starter spot. It could go to a number of options, but the frontrunners will be a quartet of youngsters already in the weight room.

Obviously, Eichenberg will get his chance. Freshman Dillan Gibbons earned offensive scout team player of the year honors last week, often a precursor to first-team contributions in the near future. All the way back on National Signing Day, this space saw Gibbons as “a prototypical Harry Hiestand offensive guard.”

If neither Eichenberg nor Gibbons, the focus will turn to freshmen Joshua Lugg and Aaron Banks. The latter enrolled early as a highly-touted tackle, part of why Hainsey’s fall emergence came as such a surprise. If any freshman was to contribute along the line, it was always assumed it would be Banks. Lugg, meanwhile, measures 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds. He is a tackle in the making at some point in his Notre Dame career.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.